HTT Spotlight: Michelle Pain, sport psychologist

Ben Scott
November 22, 2020

Here’s The Thing is pleased to introduce a new fortnightly segment, HTT Spotlight, a segment which highlights one key figure in the local esports industry. The aim is to not only shed some light on the work they’ve been doing for our industry as a whole, but to also give them the recognition they deserve.

The esports industry knows Michelle Pain as a Sport Psychologist that assists teams and individual players with reaching the next level in their performance. But Michelle is more than that. She has a wealth of experience in her field and is striving to help our local industry reach greater heights through her work. Michelle works closely with players that aim to represent our region on a global scale - no matter what level they are currently playing at. 

I had the opportunity to sit down with Michelle over the past couple days and learn more about her roots and what she is aiming to achieve in the esports industry. 

Michelle Pain, Sport Psychologist

Michelle is a 59 year old mother of two sons, one of which is an elite gymnast (now retired) and the other is the current Operations Manager for The Chiefs Esports Club - Mike Stewart or otherwise known online as Voltris. Michelle comes to this industry that we call esports with over 30 years experience in sport psychology, whilst also using her knowledge to teach younger generations at Victoria University and Deakin University in Australia. 

An interesting fact about Michelle is that her first claim to fame in academia was when she created the first Master of Sport Psychology coursework degree in Australia, which led to the formation of the Board of Sport and Exercise Psychologists – an initiative that provides a professional pathway for psychologist wanting to specialise in their field.

How did Michelle get into esports you may ask? If you were to guess, your answer would most likely aim towards one of her sons, and you’d be right. Michelle was introduced to the world of esports when a former Counter-Strike: Global Offensive team for Tainted Minds, who later became The Chiefs Esports Club, wanted to use a sport psychologist and her son Mike knew just the person to speak to. 

The Chiefs Esports Club not only utilized Michelle for her work with their Counter-Strike team, they also used her to help their Rocket League roster ahead of the qualifiers for the Rocket League Championship Series in 2019. Upon the disbandment of the Counter-Strike team in 2019, Michelle moved to Avant Gaming with players Peter “BL1TZ” Athanastos and Chris “ofnu” Hanley until the middle of this year. During her work with Avant Gaming, Michelle also worked with Carnage’s Female Counter-Strike roster at the beginning of this year. 

Since leaving Avant Gaming, Michelle has gone on to work with a variety of players in different titles, whilst also taking the time to assist a player for a Spanish Counter-Strike team and consulting for an organisation hosting Valorant and Counter-Strike in South East Asia. 

HTT Spotlight: Michelle Pain

Australasian esports compared to the likes of North America and Europe is like comparing Rugby in Australia and New Zealand to the likes of Rugby in the USA, its economical position and popularity is nowhere near the regions where it thrives the most. With that being said, coming across sport psychologists in Australasian esports is very rare. 

I spoke with Michelle on what attracted her to esports specifically for someone with over thirty years of experience in the field of sport psychology. 

What attracted you to the esports industry here in Australasia? 

What attracted me to the esports industry is that there are so many players and teams who are hungry to learn more about how to improve themselves. I love working with people who want to learn from me and I love translating what I know to be true from traditional sports and applying it to esports.

Everything I know from traditional sports can be applied in exactly the same way, but what I wasn’t prepared for is just how important communication is for good performances. I believe that working on communication within a team is the fastest way to improve the quality of a team.

Prior to working with teams within the local esports industry, what work had you been doing within the more traditional sports industry?

I was the person who had brought sports psych testing to the AFL Draft Camp and for many years now I’ve been working with different AFL Clubs helping them select new recruits and assisting them with interpreting profile results.

My favourite experience would have been working with VicSpirit, the women’s state cricket team. I love the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground), there’s something very special about being able to walk onto the middle of the ground and be down in the changerooms with the team.

Former clients of Michelle, VicSpirit (Source: Cricket Victoria)

My personal background was in track and field athletics, and in my early sport psyching days I practised on my teammates at Doncaster Athletic Club, where we had multiple Olympians and other national representatives competing, who were my friends. In fact I credit a fellow 400m hurdler with getting me started in thinking about a career in sport psychology.

In comparison to your work outside of the esports industry, how have you found working with esports teams - what strong similarities and differences have you come across?

Everything I have learned in sport psychology in traditional sports translates directly to esports, but the importance of in game communication has a much greater role in esports than in traditional sports.

I probably should expand on the way I prefer to work with teams in esports (compared to how I work in traditional sports). In traditional sports my athletes make an appointment to see me, then we work on some issues and I give them strategies to try. At the next appointment, they tell me how those went and give me more information so I can tweak the strategy a bit more.

When I started my work with The Chiefs Esports Club I’d wait for someone to tell me about an issue that they were having; I couldn’t see or hear the issue for myself, so I’d have to go by what my player was telling me. But when I got to Avant Gaming I started seeing and hearing comms on their VODs, thanks to the use of TeamSpeak and Discord. For me to be able to intervene right away when I heard something that wasn’t quite right, we could tweak things on the fly. And that’s how - in my opinion - the team improved much faster than any of us expected.

It wasn’t hit or miss, I heard and saw what the problems were myself and we could try to fix things right away. I find that way of working really rewarding.

Peter "BL1TZ" Athanasatos, one of Michelle's first esport clients (Source: HLTV)

I don't have a family who needs me to look after them any more or (sadly) much of a social life these days, so I have the time to do what is fun for me. The downside of me being quite so involved with esports teams is that my team, while they love what I have to teach them, sometimes perhaps they would like me to not be around quite so much. But to not work this way would not be enjoyable for me, so they’ll have to suck it up if they want me to work with them!

I always tell my teams, when the time comes for me to leave (because I won’t be the one wanting to go) they’ll have to say the magic words “thanks Michelle, we’ve got it from here” and I’ll know my time is up. It’s a power they should use wisely.

From an industry standpoint, what would be your summary on the state of esports here in Australasia and how have you found working with management teams thus far?

I think it’s very sad that every team who wants to play under an organisation, and get a reasonable salary, can’t do so. Management of teams I’ve worked for so far and currently working for have been fabulous - I’ve been very lucky so far.

But unfortunately I can’t earn a good living in Australasian esports, even if I worked just consultant hours, rather than the intensive hours I prefer to work. All of which is why I am keen to broaden my horizons to the likes of Europe, North American and Asia. Although it’s quite difficult working across so many time zones.

I’ll find myself inadvertently working ‘gamer hours’ when I go from team practices here in Australia to a best of three match in Singapore and finishing up work at 3:30am. But I have to back it up with work I do outside of esports, so I always hope to sneak a nap in before practise the following evening.

Overseas we have seen plenty of case studies of sport psychologist working with players in esports, but there are very few cases of it here in Australasia - likely due to budgeting and or demand - what benefits does a sport psych bring to a team and how would you argue the point that there is a need for them here? 

Budgets are always going to be problematic in Australasia due to our small market, so I’ll talk more here about trying to be transparent about what I do. I was recently horrified when one of my team tried to justify my role as a salaried non-playing member to a prospective org owner by saying ‘she’s like the Team Mum’. I could just imagine the org owner thinking, ‘well I have a Mum and there’s no way I’d put her on a salary’.

I should point out that a sport psychologist, as opposed to a mental skills coach, is guaranteed because of their training to be experienced in typical 20s-something mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. It’s important that these are recognised and treated effectively so that suffering is minimised. It’s absolutely true that I care about the mental and physical health of my players, and I’m very interested in team culture and making sure the team respects and enjoys each others’ company, but what I really do is equip players with tools to help them be mentally stronger under pressure.

My experience in academia and practice also helps me convey ‘good thinking strategies’ when it comes to learning and practice - in fact any form of decision making.

Avant Gaming CS:GO 2019, former clients of Michelle (Source: HLTV)

It’s surprising how many things a team does could be tweaked better. I see it as my job to minimise ‘chance’ as an explanation for winning or losing. I’m all about doing and thinking about ‘high performance’ things - controlling as many factors as possible to leverage opportunities to be successful (such as sleep/recovery, nutrition, and hydration). And being a team of 5 players (and if you are lucky, a coach too), you have multiple personalities to look after, so sometimes it can be a bit tricky.

I like to think that all my players are much better off having worked with me. That’s my yardstick of success. Actually, I also consider it to be a sign of success if a parent comments on the positive changes I have made in their child. Parents - who are likely to be closer to my age - recognising my efforts in helping their child is something I really, truly value.

If you were talking to a Sport Psychology student looking to enter the esports industry here in Australia once they graduate, what advice would you give to them? 

I would love them to come into this space. But I would warn them, just as in traditional sports, lots of people want to use the knowledge of a sport psychologist, but not many want to pay for it. I would recommend they have a ‘bread and butter’ job to pay the bills, and then do as much or as little in esports as they want to do.

For those that are interested to know, I have priced myself at a particular point (which is ridiculously inexpensive compared to the real world pricing of a sport psychologist who earns currently just under $300/hour) and even then many orgs and players say I am unaffordable when I ask for $400/month for at least 3 months guaranteed work...that’s my minimum for orgs who are small...but for orgs which are much larger, I ask for 50% of a player’s salary/month.

I think that is fair. But it’s not just me they are getting, they get access to my esports ebook with 30+ years of knowledge. It’s important to note that I reserve the right to take on pro bono cases in titles that interest me, or in titles where I want to get more experience, and I do that if I have the time.

Wrapping things up, could you provide some words on what the future holds for you and any specific shoutouts you’d like to make?

In the short term I’ll be looking for work after First Strike has ended, in either CS or Valorant I’d expect, although I’m open to working in a different title. I really miss not having an OCE CS team - I’m a bit of a CS snob - I do think it is the best ‘thinking person’s game’.

In the long term I want to continue working in esports until I’m very, very old, and ideally I want to continue working across regions around the world and keep working in different titles. (Really, I’m living the dream right now to be honest.) On a personal note, at times I feel like a unicorn. I’d love to share my interests with someone… you don’t know of a roughly 60 year old male who loves CS too, do you?

More seriously, I can’t wait for LAN’s to come back. I’ve been in four different teams so far this year and not met any of them in real life. I was so lucky in 2019 to go to three lans with the Chiefs boys. They were really special times. I can’t tell you how much I love working with all my players… they all mean so much to me, and I hope they will be my friends for life.

My players shape the way I will work with teams in the future. But there are also people on Twitter who are ‘my community’ who are so supportive of me and what I do. I want to thank them for their friendship too. Onward and upward OCE, let’s go!

If you have someone in mind that you would like highlighted from the Australasian esports industry reach out to